15 years after Olympic glory, Shannon Miller overcomes another challenge
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (STATS) - Fifteen years ago - July 23, 1996, to be exact - Shannon Miller and the "Magnificent Seven" of U.S. women gymnasts stood atop the podium at the Georgia Dome to receive their Olympic gold medals.
It wasn't until recently Miller realized that feat may have only been her life's second-biggest accomplishment.
Far from the fanfare of those fateful days in Atlanta, forever etched in the public's collective mental archive of great Olympic moments - who can forget Kerri Strug being carried to the podium by coach Bela Karolyi? - Miller walked out of a Jacksonville hospital, cleared of treatment after a final round of chemotherapy.
That was early May. Four months prior, she underwent surgery after a baseball-sized cyst was found on one of her ovaries during a routine checkup. After the procedure, she was told it was a germ-cell malignancy.
"You start questioning, 'Why me? What did I do wrong?'" Miller said.
Despite having no symptoms, Miller had a special perspective on annual health screenings due to work she had done with doctors and cancer survivors on her radio show. Although she was busy and had considered pushing back the appointment which may have helped save her life, "a little voice said, 'Don't delay this.'"
That decision proved to be as critical as the treatment was immediate.
"It was a hit 'em hard, hit 'em fast approach," Miller said. "The nausea killed me and I landed back in the hospital. ... Suddenly, walking to the park was a big deal."
Particularly for a former high-performance athlete like Miller, now 34, the chemo took its toll on her body and mind. The most decorated U.S. gymnast in Olympic history - male or female - she owns seven medals as a member of the 1992 and '96 teams. And while the picture of an injured Strug is the go-to moment of the Atlanta Games, Miller's gold-medal magnificence on the balance beam - the first American ever to do so - was equally historic.
"Shannon had an immense impact on gymnastics in the U.S.," said Kathy Kelly, who was with the team in Atlanta and is now Vice President of Program for USA Gymnastics. "Shannon always performed with exquisite form and artistry. The Europeans are renowned for these attributes and then came an American, who not only displayed these qualities, but also coupled them with innovative skills, difficulty and consistency."
But just like that, a girl who was once the world's pre-eminent example of grace and power began to struggle with the simplest of life's tasks.
"It's easy to slip into a depression," Miller said. "As an athlete, you use your body as a tool to excel, but suddenly it's not doing what you want."
Eventually, she found ways to incorporate small amounts of physical activity into her daily routine, realizing that just 10 minutes of yoga on bad days would help with the nausea. Of course, the memories of an incredible career always helped too, from her early days of getting involved in the sport so she could be like her older sister to that magical ride through Atlanta.
"Everything we had been through as a team, not only our gymnastics team, but our home teams, had finally come together," Miller reminisced.
But as the years passed, the golden limelight began to dim, and the adjustment to a post-Olympic life proved to be almost as big of a challenge as getting there in the first place.
"I've talked to other Olympic athletes, and you go through a depression," Miller said. "You've gone from training 40 hours a week (to almost nothing).
"My parents always said education comes first, so I had that to go back to for stability, but I was extremely shy and stayed in my apartment, eating and not working out to the level I was once used to."
After getting her law degree from Boston College, Miller experimented with fad diets, eventually becoming focused on women's health and starting the Shannon Miller Lifestyle website to promote the issue. It was through that work she became disciplined about yearly checkups.
Miller blogged about her journey on the site and was inundated with letters, cards, e-mails and notes on Twitter and Facebook.
"I was living a very public lifestyle, but I'm a private person, so to be so open about my fears and about my body (was difficult)," she said. "When I was having bad days, I would read what people wrote."
Kelly isn't surprised how Miller still impacts women today.
"It is difficult to understand how a young woman who always lived a healthy lifestyle could be stricken with such a hideous disease," she said. "But ... the same characteristics that made her into an Olympic gold medalist will serve her again to win and inspire others."
Miller is back to work full-time, and returned to Atlanta last week to promote USA Gymnastics. She's previously provided television commentary for NBC's Olympic coverage and hopes to do so again in London next summer. In the meantime, she'll be assisting with coverage for the national championships in August.
It's unlikely that the 2012 women's team will leave as significant an imprint on the sport as the magnificent group 15 years ago. But it is safe to say that 15 years from now, its priorities will be a bit different.
Miller, who now has a young son, said several members from the '96 team recently got together. The conversations, however, didn't center on flashbacks of glory days long gone.
"Dirty diapers was a big topic," she laughed. "Life goes on."
For Shannon Miller, it does indeed.
Kate Hedlin is a writer for STATS LLC. Write to her at khedlin(at)stats.com.